Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The 160-Minute Runtime of Nashville Flies Right By Thanks To How Well-Made It Is

Welcome to the Bi-Centennial Celebration of America. The year is 1976 and everyone is gearing up to celebrate 200 years of existence for the United States of America. Nashville follows the lives of a wide assortment of characters in Nashville, Tennesse over the course of a few days, with one of the key unifying elements across this bevy of storylines being that a controversial political figure is preparing to give a speech in this Southern city. Among the people we follow over the course of Nashville are singer Linnea Reese (Lilly Tomlin), her husband Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), rocker Tom Frank (Keith Carradine) and so many others. The cast is so dense that it includes Jeff Goldblum showing up in an assortment of dialogue-free appearances as a figure only referred to in the credits as The Silent Tricycle Man.

Nashville is a vast piece of cinema, which is par for the course for director Robert Altman, who loves his expansive casts the same way Quentin Tarantino loves dialogue packed with pop culture references. Given how well-suited this tale is to his artistic sensibilities, it's interesting to note that Altman is not responsible for the script for Nashville. That honor goes to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, who keeps this immense story flowing in an outstandingly cohesive manner. Her ability to juggle all these storytelling elements so gracefully is a feat of screenwriting equivalent in its impressiveness to the sight of a person balancing a whole horde of objects on their nose while riding a unicycle. 

Though there are so many people to be found in Tewkesbury tome of a screenplay, no two of the vibrantly-realized characters here are the same. That's already a commendable accomplishment in and of itself but it becomes extra impressive when one realizes how richly entertaining it is to see such individually detailed characters (which include the likes of a BBC journalist or a silent Vietnam veteran the latter played by a young Scott Glenn) interact with one another. It's a hoot to watch all of the separate storylines infrequently collide into one and another over the course of this feature film. Nobody lives in a vacuum in Nashville, Tennesse, everyone's lives have ripple effects that impact others. Sometimes that leads to comedy, other times, it leads to haunting tragedy.

There's a somber undercurrent to all of the storylines that intermingle that only grows more and more potent as the story goes on. People come into Nashville, Tennesse with all kinds of ambitions, whether it's becoming or a big-time singer or launching a political career only for those hopes to get, over the course of five days, sidelined in manners that range from the frustrating to the outright gruesome. The lack of tidy happy endings in Nashville works as a reflection of the gruesomeness of this era of American history, one that was still reeling from events like Watergate that had shaken the country to the core. If you couldn't trust a U.S. President, who could you trust? Suddenly, the established moral parameters were out the window and chaos was reigning supreme.

Thus, the world of Nashville is heavily populated with people who are various degrees of morally compromised, one's whose interactions are extremely entertaining thanks to how well-written the darkly comic dialogue is, the richly detailed performances and Altman's effortlessly assured direction. This expansive and ambitious project really does seem to bring out the best in the sprawling amount of creative participants helping to bring it to life and their efforts especially pay off in helping to execute the gradually increasing sense of woe in the overall tone. At first working as a darkly comic take on various parts of American culture (like patriotic country music or American political campaigns), the story begins to reflect the moral hopelessness of the 1970s more and more as time passes.

By the time we're knee deep into the second act, we're getting a number of sequences that are just outright heartbreaking in their depiction of people being worn down by this city that serves as a microcosm of human immorality. Nashville reaches its apex in terms of being a haunting reflection on this specific era of America while its climax leaves the viewer with a sense of fixates on two figures people look to for hope (singer Barbara Jean and off-screen politician Hal Phillip Walker) colliding to disastrous results. Nashville leaves you with a pit in your stomach, your heart aching and your mind thoroughly impressed. Much like Jeanne Dielman, Robert Altman's 1975 directorial effort Nashville is a prime example of how to properly make use of every inch of an expansive cinematic canvas.

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